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Coronavirus restrictions put pressure on upcoming bumper northern NSW grain harvest

By Kristy Reading, Amelia Bernasconi and Haley Craig, Tuesday September 22, 2020 - 08:49 EST
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All of GrainCorp's 80 receival sites in NSW will be operating in what's shaping up to be the best season in four years. - ABC licensed

For many farmers across north-western New South Wales, preparations for the upcoming grain harvest are reminiscent of the 2016-2017 season.

It was one that yielded decent returns.

But that season was also a time before a global pandemic, and before border closures north at Queensland and Victoria in the south.

Now, those in the industry are entering uncharted territory and new challenges are presenting themselves.

Versatility the key to a successful harvest

General Manager of Operations at GrainCorp Nigel Lotz said due to the pandemic restrictions, planning had been more crucial for this year's harvest than others.

Operators now have to consider the additional safeguards and restrictions that come with running an agricultural enterprise in a global pandemic.

"For an east coast harvest, normally as Queensland starts we'd have some of the Victorians going up there," Graincorp's general manager of operations Nigel Lotz said.

"We haven't been able to do that. And then normally as Victoria starts — Queenslanders go down there.

"We've just braced the conditions like we always do. It's never consistent.

"That's probably why we're all in it. Each year is different. The season comes at you, you've got to work out what works best."

GrainCorp will have all its 80 New South Wales receival sites open for harvest, a far cry from the last season.

And while some farmers have reported challenges accessing staff, Mr Lotz said after months of planning, the company had had around 5,000 applications for its harvest work opportunities.

About 800 of those workers will head to Northern New South Wales.

"To run a big east coast harvest like this year, we're going to need in the order of 3,000 to 3,500 extra people across the east coast," he said.

"We got onto this early. We're conscious of the challenge it's going to be with COVID, and we've implemented as many contactless sites as possible across the network."

Where to put a bumper harvest

In Moree, local agronomist Tony Lockrey said more and more growers had been preparing their own storage options, amid the current labour shortage in a race against the clock to store their grain.

"Probably the biggest change I'm seeing, because of that, is growers are starting to look more to on-farm storage, even if it's temporary storage," Mr Lockrey said.

"There's been quite a few bunker pads being prepared and grain bag machines being dusted off and greased, just in case."

"We just can't afford to leave the crop in the paddock."

"If it's right, we need to be getting it off and storing it in some fashion so it's out of the weather. We can market it later once we know what we've got."

'We haven't got the season in the bag yet'

In preparation to store more wheat than they've had in years, Australian-owned Manildra Group recently purchased three new bulk receival sites in the Riverina, Central West and at Bellata, to add to its portfolio which includes a site at Moree.

"It's probably a bit of luck of the Irish; buying sites and having a decent season come along as well," Head Grain Buyer, Peter Sloan said.

"We haven't got the season in the bag yet. We're all sort of waiting for finishing rain to sprite the crops back up, help with grain [to] fill and maintain the yields, if not improve the yield potential that's in the paddock now.

Mr Sloan said the need for extra storage reflected the increased demand.

"Rather than building more storage at some of our [flour] mills, we decided it'd be easier to utilise existing infrastructure that was already in place," he said.


© ABC 2020

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